Altaïr spurred his horse on, his progress slowed by pockets of Crusaders engaged in looting, and preying upon those denizens of Masyaf attempting to regain the village from the beleaguered fortress. Three times he had to expend precious time and energy in defending his people from the depredations of these surly Franks, who styled themselves Soldiers of Christ. But the words of gratitude and encouragement rang in his ears as he rode on, and spurred his purpose:

“Bless you, Assassin!”

“I was certain I’d be killed! Thank you!”

“Drive these Crusaders back into the sea, once and for all!”

At last he reached the gate. It yawned open. Looking up, Altaïr could see a fellow Assassin frantically working at the winch mechanism on the gatehouse, some hundred feet above. A platoon of Assassin foot soldiers were grouped at the foot of one of the nearby towers.

“Why is the gate still open?” Altaïr called to him.

“Both winches are jammed. The castle is swarming with the enemy.”

Altaïr looked into the courtyard of the castle to see a group of Crusaders making for him. He addressed the lieutenant in charge of the platoon. “Hold this position.”

Sheathing his sword and dismounting, he started to climb the outer wall of the gatehouse and, shortly afterward, arrived at the side of the comrade who was working to free the winches. Frantically, they worked on them, and their combined strength prevailed—at least, enough to free the gate partially, and it slipped down a few feet, juddering and groaning.

“Nearly there,” said Altaïr, through gritted teeth. His muscles bulged as he and his fellow Assassin struggled to dislodge the cogs of the second winch. At last it gave, and the gate came crashing down on the melee between Assassins and Crusaders taking place below. The Assassins managed to leap clear, but the Crusaders’ troop was divided by the falling gate, some inside the castle, others trapped outside.

Altaïr made his way down the stone steps that led from the top of the gatehouse to the central courtyard of Masyaf. The scattered bodies of Assassins attested to the fierce fighting that had only recently taken place there. As he looked around, scanning the ramparts and battlements, a door in the Great Keep opened, and from it emerged a group of people who made him draw in his breath sharply. A company of elite Crusader infantrymen surrounded the Mentor of the Brotherhood—A l Mualim. The old man was semiconscious. He was being dragged along by two brutal-looking troopers. With them was a figure with a dagger, whom Altaïr recognized. A big, tough man with dark, unreadable eyes, and a deep, disfiguring scar on his chin. His thin hair was tied up in a black ribbon.

Haras.

Altaïr had long wondered where Haras’s true loyalties had lain. An Assassin adept, he had never seemed satisfied with the rank assigned to him within the Brotherhood. He was a man who sought an easy route to the top rather than one that rewarded merit. Though a man with a well-deserved reputation as a fighter, chameleon-like, he had always managed to worm his way into other people’s confidence by adapting his personality to suit theirs. His ambitions had clearly got the better of him, and, seeing an opportunity, he had traitorously thrown in his lot with the Crusaders. Now he even dressed in Crusader uniform.

“Stand back, Altaïr!” he cried. “Another step, and your Mentor dies!”

At the sound of the voice, Al Mualim rallied, stood proud, and raised his own voice. “Kill this wretch, Altaïr! I do not fear death!”

“You won’t leave this place alive, traitor!” Altaïr called to Haras.

Haras laughed. “No. You misunderstand. I am no traitor.” He took a helmet, which was hanging from his belt, and donned it. A Crusader helmet! Haras laughed again. “You see? I could never betray those I never truly loved.”

Haras started to walk toward Altaïr.

“Then you are doubly wretched,” said Altaïr. “For you have been living a lie.”

Things happened quickly then. Haras drew his sword and lunged toward Altaïr. At the same moment, Al Mualim managed to break free of his guards and, with a strength that belied his age, wrested the sword from one of them and cut him down. Profiting from Haras’s momentary distraction, Altaïr unleashed his hidden-blade and struck at the traitor. But Haras squirmed out of the way and brought his own sword down in a cowardly stroke while Altaïr was off balance.

Altaïr rolled to one side, springing back to his feet quickly as a knot of Crusaders rushed to Haras’s defense. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Al Mualim fighting another group.

“Kill the bastard!” snarled Haras, stepping out of harm’s way.

Altaïr tasted fury. He surged forward, slicing through the throats of two Crusader assailants. The others fell back in fear, leaving Haras isolated and petrified. Altaïr cornered him where two walls met. He had to make haste and finish the job, to go to his Mentor’s assistance.

Haras, seeing Altaïr momentarily distracted, cut at him quickly, ripping the cloth of his tunic. Altaïr lashed back in retaliation and plunged his hidden-blade straight into the base of Haras’s neck, just above the sternum. With a strangled cry, the traitor fell back, crashing against the wall. Altaïr stood over him.

Haras looked up as Altaïr’s figure blocked the sun. “You put too much faith in the hearts of men, Altaïr,” he said, barely getting the words out as the blood bubbled from his chest. “The Templars know what is true. Humans are weak, base, and petty.” He didn’t know he could have been describing himself.

“No, Haras. Our Creed is evidence to the contrary. Try to return to it, even now, in your last hour. I beg you out of pity to redeem yourself.”

“You will learn, Altaïr. And you will learn the hard way.” Nevertheless, Haras paused in thought for a moment, and even as the light in his eyes slowly died, he fought for speech. “Perhaps I am not wise enough to understand, but I suspect the opposite of what you believe is true. I am at least too wise to believe such rubbish as you do.”

Then his eyes became marble, and his body leaned to one side, a long, rattling sigh escaping from it as it relaxed in death.

The doubt he’d seeded in Altaïr’s mind didn’t take root immediately. There was too much to be done for there to be time for thought. The young man wheeled round and joined his Mentor, fighting shoulder to shoulder until the Crusader band was routed, either sprawled in the bloody dust or fled.

Around them, meanwhile, the signs were that the battle had turned in the Assassins’ favor. The Crusader army was beating a retreat from the castle though the battle beyond it continued. Messengers soon arrived to confirm that.

Source: www.StudyNovels.com
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